To take another example, if you fail to understand the impact of religion upon America, you will be unable to make much sense of the American story. Which is not to say that only religious people, not to mention Christians, can truly understand America, or be truly American; it is simply to point out that if you fail to understand the basic ideas and experiences of religious people – particularly Protestants and Evangelicals of various sorts – a true understanding of America and Americans will elude you. The Reformation (and especially the English Reformation) and the two Great Awakenings are intricately bound up in our origins. Meanwhile, our rhetoric and literature is soaked in the Bible, especially the King James Version; a professor of humanities who doesn’t know the Bible is a child among adults, whatever his personal religious opinions.
To take a third example, if you don’t understand the development of the English Common Law, and what the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the liberties of Englishmen meant to our Founders, the meaning of America will also elude you. And this basic political substrate is shot through with later deposits formed by the Enlightenment which draw upon concepts of reason and natural law and a knowledge of the Classics.
The subsequent history of America involves many other things besides these, things which have also made us what we are: Sectionalism and the Civil War; the impact of the Frontier; Mass Immigration; the development of Free Enterprise Capitalism; the propensity of Americans to invent, discover, and develop new processes and products; mass media, consumerism, the idea of the Free World. Each of these experiences, like the first three, make America different from other nations of the world. Other nations look at us and say, “what is it about the United States?” Sometimes they say this in admiration and sometimes in exasperation, but you can’t get away from the idea that America truly is an exceptional society.
We are so much more than our ugliest expressions. And those who would see only those are themselves both perpetrator and victim of their own racism, which they fain would embroil the rest of us in. Pity them, but don’t buy what they’re selling.